Romans 1:18-32 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.They know God’s decree, that those who practise such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practise them.
This passage of the text has often been used to condemn same sex relationships. On its face it seems cut and dried. "Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error." Taking the text out of context makes the exhortation in this passage problematic in its typical application. Remember whenever we are reading biblical texts they are written in a certain time to a specific audience. So when we look at this passage through 21st century eyes we have to recognize that same sex relationships as we know them.
When Paul writes to a church in Rome he is writing to a community with a spiritual landscape that included temple prostitution. When we look at this text its important to notice the words 'exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural.' What I believe we see in this text is a call mutuality and a condemnation of 'using' others for the sake of personal gratification, be it physical or spiritual.
This is not the first, nor will it be the last time that we encounter words from Paul that we might find vexing should we only read it on a superficial level. Remember we view and understand the holy scriptures as living and dynamic that reveal their gifts to each generation and those who have the patient and prayerful commitment to receive the wisdom they hold.
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles. I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish --hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome. The Power of the Gospel For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’
Here we have a continuation of Paul's introduction to the letter to this 'church' (ecclesia in Greek). Paul is also explaining his purpose for writing the letter and issuing an invitation to the fledgling church in Rome to look at God's purpose and posture as one of radical inclusion and built upon the rock of grace and an emphasis on God's longing for relationship rather than God's command that we 'keep the rules' of the law as a means of entering into this relationship.
In claiming to be a 'debtor to both Greeks and barbarians' Paul is making it clear that God is at work in all people and being a member of the 'chosen people' is an inclusive rather than an exclusive reality. In other words it is God's intention, in fact it is the reality, that we are all chosen by God and that our membership in the family of God depends not on our behavior but is a given state of all persons due to the operation of grace (God's unmerited favor) available and promised to everyone.
One of the early wishes of Paul in the letter is that the church will be a place where "we are mutually encouraged by each other's faith." It is in this spirit that I pray we will read, mark, learn and inwardly digest this letter during the coming days as we travel through its pages.
THE LETTER OF PAUL TO THERomans Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Today's reading is typical of Paul's introductions to the letters he wrote to communities that he helped found and form. The difference here is that the church in Rome is not a community that Paul had actually visited or helped to found.
Paul believed that the radical claim of "Jesus is Lord" was a direct and necessary challenge to the Roman claim that "Caesar is Lord". This is critical to Paul in claiming that Jesus was indeed equal and co-eternal with the God of the Jews. For Paul it logically follows that every power and principality is subject to the kingship of Jesus and that the coming of the Kingdom of God is the central and ultimate truth to which all of creation toward which the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus points.
Paul begins laying the groundwork for his project of full inclusion of all people in the mission of God or missio Dei represented by Jesus ongoing work in the world through the witness and struggles of the fulfillment of God's plan for the world proclaimed in the person of Jesus and his ongoing ministry in and to the world.
“People of the Book” and the Power of Story in Christian Community Discernment
Christians, like our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers are known as “people of the book”. The importance of scripture reading and the written stories of God’s relationship with God’s people are at the center of the lives of these spiritual communities.
Worship, work in the world and the life of personal ethics and morality are shaped by the books of scripture that are at the heart of our traditions. We find a great deal of meaning in the collections of stories and wisdom passed along from generation in the faith.
You may be surprised to learn that Islam holds both Jesus and his mother Mary in very high esteem. In fact the Koran devotes an entire ‘surah’ or book to Mary’s role in Islam and how she lives out the life of a willing servant. Similarly, Jesus, like Muhammed is identified as a prophet, one who speaks for God, in the Koran.
Whether we are Muslim, Christian or Jewish we all trace family lineage back to Abraham and Sarah. In particular it is the call of Abram to move from relative comfort and security in Ur of the Chaldees ,“ Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.,” which characterizes the emergence of what we call today monotheism from a world in which a plurality of ‘gods’ was the rule rather than the exception.
Hold onto that verse for a bit, I will come back to it later.
Before writing any of the stories of the Old Testament, New Testament or Koran down, they were passed along orally. Because of this it is fair to say that before we were ‘people of the book’ we were ‘people of the story’. We make meaning by story. We remember events and people past through story. We share great truths through story.
I am a firm believer in the deep truth attributed to Roman Catholic Theologian, Storyteller and Author Megan McKenna, “All stories are true, some of them actually happened.”
In scripture story is often used to help convey truths that are more universal and primal than the events they represent.
The Bible, as we know it, is a collection of books-a library if you will-that tells a bigger story. It tells the story of God’s relationship with God’s people and vice versa. This is true individually and as communities of faith from age to age.
I remember being introduced to a mnemonic device as a young person that I originally thought was interesting. One of my early mentors in the Christian life. He wrote the word history on a piece of paper. Then he wrote it again by making it two words- his-story. He made the assertion that all of what has happened and will happen in the world is held together in Jesus Christ. Later on I considered it sort of contrived and silly.
As I have aged and noticed that all things are indeed in Christ (one of the Apostle Paul’s favorite phrases). I believe this old tools is as useful as it ever was.
This all serves as background to the work before us here at St. Mark’s. The story of this parish is a really good story and it’s truth goes deeper than the facts and events of its past.
When a group of folks gathered around 1963 to start a new Episcopal Church, it is my understanding they did not have a building. What they did have was a sense of God calling them together to be a witness to this area of Hampton.
In addition to being called to worship and witness to a particular place, St. Mark’s was called to witness and worship in a particular time.
Both the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race met here at St. Mark’s and the ground was prepared for a truly diverse congregation to grow in the five acres and building it now occupies. There were life long residents of the Peninsula worshipping with newcomers to Langley from NASA, the Air Force, the Navy and other government agencies. There were white folks and people of color that found a spiritual home at St. Mark’s.
Decades later another marginalized group found oasis at St. Mark’s when the congregation became the first Integrity affiliated congregation in the Diocese of Southern Virginia. Integrity being a group of Episcopalians committed to full inclusion for LGBTQ folks in the life of the church. This ‘radical welcome’ came at a cost when a big conflict in the life of the congregation divided people and a goodly number left.
As a longtime member of the parish wrestled with gender identity issues, the leadership of St. Mark’s made a conscious decision for acceptance. It was a costly and faithful decision. This is the heart of discernment. Radical welcome continues to be one of the core values and gifts that St. Mark’s has to offer to the world.
Discernment differs from decision-making. Traditional decision-making is like using the ‘Ben Franklin’ method. You know what I am talking about. This method is putting two columns on a page representing a choice between two options and listing the pros and cons between the two. When we have seen the overwhelming number on one side of the ledger, the choice is clear.
Discernment, spiritual discernment, is different. We can have two or even many more columns each with many reasons supporting their candidacy for what doing the ‘next right thing’ might look like for an individual or community. What tips the scales in spiritual discernment is not the number of reasons for choosing a particular options, but in looking for where the Holy Spirit leads.
This typically happens best in community and only through a commitment to prayer and time.
Decision-making is about finding answers. Discernment, at its most faithful, is about seeking out and living into the questions.
What will guide is in the discernment event we have today and looking forward will emerge first in seeking which questions we are to answer. We will start with these four:
What brought you here and keeps you here? What are the core values at St. Marks? What are your hopes and fears going into an unknown process? What ideas can you offer as we move forward? From what we hear from one another in this process and in our commitment to pray regularly for the parish leadership and one another, we trust that God’s preferred and promised future will begin to emerge in the form of questions that will lead us to hear God’s voice ringing in our ears as in Abraham’s bidding us to, ““Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.,”
This may not necessarily mean leaving this space, but it will mean leaving some of our comfort zone and previously held way of doing things behind.
May we all prayerfully travel together trusting that the story of St. Mark’s is far from over and that the next chapter will be written in God’s hand if we are able to stay focused and in a place of trust and radical hospitality.
Over the past several weeks we have concentrated on the Letter to the Ephesians in our Bible Study and Preaching. The Cliff’s Notes version has been Paul’s (?) message to a church seeking to find its voice in a new apostolic age. That basically means this church is being directed by the author of the letter to get clear about what the Good News (Gospel) of God in Christ is and how to go about sharing this Gospel with the people among whom the community lives, moves and has its being. I have been concentrating on this basic call of and to community as a model for how we might be called to discern and articulate our call to mission and ministry at St. Mark’s.
In his contemporary American Opera, Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin famously wrote perhaps the work’s most famous song, “Summertime (and the Living is Easy)”. In a number of ways the American Church has patterned its first leg of Ordinary Time (the Season after Pentecost) along similar lines. September is often viewed as the beginning of the ‘program year’ in the church. Life at St. Mark’s is no different in many ways and profoundly different in another. Summertime is often viewed as a sort of ‘holding pattern’ in the church. That is, a time of waiting for the ‘real work’ of ministry to begin again.
The ‘program year’ is often viewed as the time when ministries ramp up for another year in the life of a congregation. For any number of parishes this means more of the same with a sprinkling of new initiatives and responses to the needs of the congregation and the community it has been called to serve and in which it has been commissioned to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The basic story of Porgy and Bess is of Porgy, a disabled African-American street beggar living in the slums of Charleston, South Carolina and his efforts to save Bess from the clutches of her principal exploiters, Crown, a violent and possessive lover and Sportin’ Life, Bess’s drug dealer. It seems to me there are important parallels for our common life at St. Mark’s.
Like Porgy, we have obvious and seemingly insurmountable challenges to the mission to which we have been called. Also like Porgy, we are bound not to let those limitations keep us from serving as agents of good in the lives of those we have been called to seek and serve in our community. Despite ups and downs, barriers and obstacles, Porgy persists in his mission to save Bess in spite of his limitations and the underdog and apparently futile nature of his commitment to seeing Bess freed from the clutches of the relationships that threaten to destroy her life.
We too are called to persist in the work we have been given to do in being the incarnation of the Body of Christ in Hampton, the Peninsula, the Commonwealth, the nation and the world.
To be sure, there are problems with the depiction of African American life as written by composer George, lyricist Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward (the author of the story upon which Porgy and Bess is based). That being said I believe that we can learn from Porgy’s tenacious pursuit of one whom he loves and the noble and enduring aims he has in seeking the redemption of Bess despite her troubles and somewhat dubious life choices.
In the days, weeks and months to come it is my fervent prayer that we, like Porgy, pursue the work we have been given to do without fear of the damage it may do to our reputation and with the steadfast belief in the power of love to set free captives like Bess and those who are like her.
18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. 
Dear St. Mark’s Community,
It seems only last week that we shared our first Sunday together at St. Mark’s. In fact we have shared mission, ministry and worship for a bit over nine months Though it may be a stretch, our circumstances have roughly paralleled the gestation of a human child. If the analogy holds true, we are on the verge of the birth pangs of bringing something new into the world. It is true that all analogies break down in the end. However, I believe there are some similarities between pregnancy, birthing and nurture that might be useful to us as we set out to do a new thing as a congregation.
Allow me to be clear. I believe this ‘new thing’ could very well happen in the same place in which St. Mark’s has lived its history to date. The question, it seems to me is not so much, “Where we continue to be a community of faith in a new and challenging time for the church?”, but rather “how will we continue to be a community of faith in this new and challenging age?”
The passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans which precedes this reflection seems particularly applicable for us as we move forward together in seeking God’s preferred and promised future for St. Mark’s. These are certainly challenging times for us at St. Mark’s. We are living in a time of diminishing material resources, that much is certain. What, I believe, is also certain is that St. Mark’s spiritual resources are significant and growing.
As a congregation we are anxious, which is understandable. What I do not detect is a spirit of fear. Our community is bound by the good news that God’s love is unconditional and available in plenteous measure to anyone who seeks to come to Christ. We are also in a position to bear witness to the faithfulness of God. The way of discipleship has always been to dare to follow where God leads. That lead is nearly always out of our comfort zone and toward the margins of the growing Kingdom of God which the church has been called to help build as a result of the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20, “18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Beginning on the evening of August 14th, we will be joined on this journey by Ms. Cindy Barnes, a consultant and layperson from the Richmond area who has experience and expertise in helping to guide congregations through seasons of transition. Ms. Barnes is excited to share our journey with us as we seek to do this new thing. She is an example of what Paul is talking about in the passage from Romans, which leads off this reflection. Our sister congregations in the Episcopal churches of Hampton are aware and prayerfully supporting our journey. When the clergy of our convocation gather we check in where we are and where we are going and pray for one another. Folks around us are “waiting with eager longing” to see what will be revealed as we move forward together in faith.
In the weeks and months following this August 14th meeting we will be meeting regularly as a congregation to pray, worship, struggle with God’s will and purpose for the story we are living and to watch how we seek for and live out that call.
Our goal is not so much to do the “right” thing as it is to make good choices as we travel on this pilgrim journey. Remember the words of St. Teresa of Calcutta, “we are not called to do great things, but to do small things with great love.” And also, “we are not called to success, but to faithfulness.”
I have no doubt we will answer that call faithfully.